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Hamptons Life

Oh, the stories these walls could tell

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Aimee Fitzpatrick Martin   Jul 14, 2009 11:08 AM

The walls don’t need to talk in the house that writer/photographer John Jonas Gruen and artist Jane Wilson have lived in for nearly 50 years because its enchanting inhabitants are more than happy to do the talking for them.

But oh, to have been a fly on those walls, to travel back in time to watch the likes of their famous houseguests—gifted artists, musicians and writers such as Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Edward Albee, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank O’Hara and Fairfield Porter—enjoy “genuine good times and harmless merry-making” at the converted 19th century shingle-style carriage barn in Water Mill that Mr. Gruen and Ms. Wilson bought back in 1960.

But as Mr. Gruen recounted in his 2006 visual memoir, “The Sixties: Young in the Hamptons,” there was also “too much drinking, lots of pot-smoking, some casual sex, and on occasion, some very real and quite ugly nastiness.” Oh, and a little bit of skinny-dipping in the pool.

Yes, indeed, to have been a fly on the wall.

Today, Ms. Wilson—a landscape painter whose works are held in many of the world’s most famous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—is in her 80s and uses a cane to ease the pain of arthritis. But back then, she wildly danced the cha cha and the twist and listened to sultry bossa nova tunes with her close-knit group of friends, some already famous, some still yet to be discovered.

“We were young and beautiful back then, and Jane and I loved to tango together,” reminisced Mr. Gruen, an ebullient raconteur who at the time was an art and music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. “And always right there in the middle was our beautiful little Julia.”

Today, daughter Julia is all grown up and is the executive director of the prestigious Keith Haring Foundation in New York. Back then, she was a small tot often swooped up in the arms of her parents as they danced around the house.

Charlie Chaplin, Lauren Bacall, Virgil Thompson, Stella Adler, Marisol, John Ashbery, James Schuyler. Yes, they were all there too.

And Ms. Wilson—a willowy, dark-haired, full-lipped beauty who also modeled for Vogue magazine and even appeared on The $64,000 Challenge television show—was turning out gourmet meals for all of them.

“Back then, Water Mill was just a little hamlet of no particular consequence, other than it was very pretty and quiet and near the ocean,” said Mr. Gruen who went on to become a regular contributor to The New York Times, Vogue, ARTnews and Dance magazine and author of 16 books, including the 2008 memoir, “Callas Kissed Me ... Lenny Too!”

“Water Mill was just a little kink in the road with the Penny Candy Store and the post office,” added Ms. Wilson, who was raised on a small farm in Iowa and knows a thing or two about kinks in the road.

Ms. Wilson met her husband in the mid-1940s at the University of Iowa, where she was studying painting and he was studying journalism (he was so smitten with her that he took art history classes just to be in the same classes).

The worldly Mr. Gruen was born near Paris, the son of an Egyptian journalist father and a Russian mother, and raised in Italy before immigrating to New York City at the age of 13 in the hopes of achieving “some sort of stardom.”

“When we met, it was a case of opposites attracting ... But then, who wouldn’t have been attracted to Jane?” he asked.

“And you were death to women the minute you opened your mouth,” laughed Ms. Wilson, remembering her husband’s intoxicating charm.

After marrying, the financially-strapped young couple moved to Greenwich Village so they could be surrounded by “all the artists and playwrights and actors who lived there.”

While Ms. Wilson established herself as a painter, Mr. Gruen worked at the distinguished photo agency Rapho-Guillumete where he rubbed elbows with the likes of Man Ray and Robert Doisneau. The couple themselves was photographed by Diane Arbus for a Harper’s Bazaar feature on “New York’s Most Glamorous Couples.”

It was through artist friends Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers that the couple discovered the Hamptons in the late 1950s and its “uncanny light, at once so luminous, pearly and incandescent.”

“We could ill-afford a house in those days, but Jane had just had a show of her Long Island landscapes at New York’s Tibor de Nagy gallery, and it was a great success, made all the more exhilarating by her first sale of a large painting to the Museum of Modern Art,” Mr. Gruen wrote in “The Sixties: Young in the Hamptons.”

“Suddenly, Jane had made a small bundle of money ... And there was this beautiful carriage house, and we had to have it. Jane hesitated, but not for very long. Before she could change her mind, her bundle of money was handed over to the realtor, and the house was ours,” Mr. Gruen wrote.

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